“A Chicken for Every Pot.” Herbert Hoover and the Lost Presidency.

June 9, 2020

It is doubtful if Herbert Hoover uttered those words. Still, his 1928 Presidential campaign advertised him as the candidate who promised “a chicken for every pot and a car in every garage,” which translated into the message that most Americans wanted to hear. That message was that Hoover would take care of them and guarantee that prosperity would continue.

The 1920s was a period of dynamic growth in America. World War I had devastated the industrial landscape of Europe, and left American industries as the only significant economic power still standing. Factories happily produced automobiles, radios, washing machines, even refrigerators, and families continued to pour into cities, expanding their populations and resources so much that the federal government passed laws restricting immigrants. (Immigration Act of 1924).

Both productivity and consumer consumption were high, and unemployment was nearly zero. Anyone who wanted to work could find a job. By the end of the decade, many wondered if the good times might end. Was it all too good to be true? Should they be mindful to avoid falling off that so-called proverbial cliff? Hoover won the 1928 Presidential election in a landslide, and because he had convinced voters that there was no cliff. His message was clear that the good times would continue, but of course, they would not. Hoover’s campaign slogan breathed confidence into Americans. Still, six months after he took office, the country did fall off a cliff, and the stock market crashed, and economies throughout the world collapsed, and the Great Depression began.

Hoover’s 1928 Presidential election because he convinced voters that he could continue, and even build upon,the prosperity of that decade. There was almost full employment and many families enjoyed home ownership, leisure time with families and driving their automobiles on the open roads. When he accepted the Republican nomination, he said that his administration would contribute “a final triumph over poverty”.These words would come back and haunt him.

Herbert Hoover had earned a reputation as a “genius,” “boy wonder,” and a “can-do” person who radiated supreme confidence. With Hoover, anything was possible because hard work equaled achievement, and felt he was living proof. During the campaign, a superman image emerged of him, the former President of the American Farm Bureau, J.R.Howard saying, “the American farmer has never had a more steadfast friend than Herbert Hoover.” A headline from the Bay City Times, Bay City, MI. Friday, June 15, 1928, stated: “Presidential Nominee Has Had Spectacular Career.” His remarkable skills as an organizer, manager, and his wisdom when it came to solving the food crisis in Central and Eastern Europe after World War I was legendary. Even the young assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, {Hoover was certainly a wonder {boy} and I wish we could make him President of the United States}. In the decade leading up to him becoming the 31st President of the United States, Hoover had led the Commission for Relief in Belgium, had become the director of the U.S. Food Administration, and served as the nation’s third U.S. Secretary of Commerce. It seemed that Herbert Hoover could do anything.

Herbert Hoover, 1928, Candidate for President of the United States.

Headlines like “Hoover, the Boy Who Entered Business at 17, Who Fought His Way to the Top” continued the myth that Hoover was a superman. His rise to fame was impressive. Orphaned at the age of 9, he dropped out of high school because he had to work. After moving to California, he attended night classes and eventually worked his way through Stanford, earning a degree in engineering. He was known for his hard work, as well as his keen intelligence, but also his aloofness and arrogance, predicated by his self-observation, “I have insisted on having my way.” Hoover was a self-made man who took great pride in his ability to overcome adversities. Some say he was challenging to work with, and Hoover added to that perception by saying, “It simply comes to this: men hate me more after they work for me than before.”

It is likely during this period of self-development he became acutely aware of the rewards of hard work and self-reliance. His ticket for the Presidency, however, rested on the boastful campaign slogan “a chicken in every pot.” By 1930, and with 25% unemployment, and with thousands of banks closed, and millions of Americans evicted from their homes and farms, the glow of a superman President began fading. Americans remembered the infamous remark made by former President Calvin Coolidge about his successor, “the boy wonder had offered {him} unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”

There are many reasons why the Great Depression occurred. Fingers are usually pointed at the banks as the primary source of the collapse, due in part because of an excess of bad loans to individuals, businesses, and even nations. The United States evolved into being the world banker and loaned funds to Great Britain, France, and even Germany to continue financing the war, much of which was not repaid by those nations. Post-war, America was the only surviving industrial power in the world. As the world’s banker and industrial producer, the government began an overproduction of automobiles, radios, refrigerators, electric clocks, and much more. A naive country began to understand the terms of easy credit, and suddenly the “have nots” began sensing that they too could enjoy the sweeter things in life. Consumers over-consumed, factories over-produced, and Americans were over-leveraging themselves, and their futures. Add into this equation the many investors who threw money at the stock market and expecting that they too would strike it rich. As the economy collapsed, millions looked to President Hoover, the genius who had figured out how to save central Europe from starving; he would have a plan, they thought. As tens of thousands of small businesses closed, and bread lines grew, most Americans were confident that Hoover was working on a project to help them. He was not.

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother depicts destitute pea pickers in California, centering on Florence Owens Thompson, age 32, a mother of seven children, in Nipomo, California, March 193

Hoover thought that it was best to do nothing because the economy would right itself. Americans needed to be self-reliant and not look to the government for help, of this he was sure. His administration made it clear that Hoover’s government would not be giving handouts to Americans, despite the hard times. Americans needed to be “self-reliant”; they needed “to be strong and independent,” and most importantly, they “needed to stand up on their own two feet.” America would not turn into a socialist society while he was in office. Americans wanted that as well, but many had already exhausted all of those grand notions.

In a schoolhouse in West Virginia, a teacher told a young girl who appeared to be hungry, to go home and get something to eat. The child responded, “I can’t,it’s my sister’s turn to eat.” In Detriot, Louise Armstrong wrote, “We saw a crowd of some fifty men fighting over a barrel of garbage which had been set outside the back door of a restaurant. American citizens are fighting over scraps of food like animals.”

Millions of families lost their homes and farms through either eviction or foreclosure. In 1931 the Missouri Pacific Railroad reported counting over 200,000 homeless people living in their boxcars. The times were so bad that some parents abandoned their children. Children were turning up in bus stations, post offices, the hospitals and churches with messages pinned to their clothes, “please take care of little Johnny.” Some estimates suggest that the number of abandoned children amounted to nearly 1 million. Crime and suicide increased, while divorce and birth rates dropped because families could not afford to either split up or contemplate bringing more mouths to a family’s table when it was already bare of food. Hoover’s administration denied that there was a crisis. All that was needed, according to President Hoover, was to let the sick economy cure it. According to Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, “everything from banks to farms needed to be liquidated,” it “would purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder and live a more moral life.” There was an expressed coldness in the messages that came from the Hoover administration.

Unemployed men hopping a train ride to another city .

Hoover’s lack of empathy in addressing the suffering was disturbing, but his public comments placed him at odds with the personal tragedies occurring across the country. In 1930, telling bankers, “the depression is over.” and later, “I am convinced we have passed the worst and with continued effort, we will recover.” Hoover was wrong. It would be ten more years and another World War before the nation recovered, but Hoover had been confident that recovery was just around the corner. “No one has yet starved,” he said in another speech, but of course, that was false, too. New York had reported that at least 100 citizens had died because of a lack of food in 1931.

Always satisfied that he was right, Hoover pushed through the Revenue Act of 1932, raising the tax rate from 25% to 63% on the highest earners. He thought this balance the federal budget. It did not, and instead, Hoover’s thoughtless action discouraged consumer spending even more and created more obstacles for an economic recovery. By increasing taxes on those who were already struggling, many wondered if the “boy wonder” cared about them. Americans were confident, too, that Hoover did not understand them, and he seemed to lack even the slightest show of empathy towards the suffering that millions were experiencing.

State and local governments had no programs or funds to address the starving and the homeless. Shantytowns began to spring up throughout the nation. Made of cardboard, scrap wood, and metal, it didn’t take long for the masses to start calling them Hoovervilles. And when the winters’freezing began, the homeless began calling the newspapers that they wrapped around themselves for warmth Hoover blankets. Hoover refused to provide federal programs to the needy for fear that the nation would be “plunged into socialism.” He felt that government assistance would be the worst thing for a country in crisis, and rob people of the desire to help themselves.

A Hooverville community located near Puget Sound in Seattle, Wa.

Hoover felt that addressing personal hardships should be part of the “natural generosity” of churches, and volunteer groups, such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross. The crisis, however, quickly overwhelmed their resources. It was only a year after his landslide victory for President, the New York Times said this about the opinion of Hoover, “is turning rather heavily against the Hoover administration.” Two years later, he tried another tactic to save the economy – the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, or RFC, as many referred to it. This government effort was about protecting the banks, life insurance carriers, and railroads and not about helping the millions of Americans trying to survive. U.S.Senator Robert Wagner asked the question, “if the government could help businesses, why couldn’t they help the people in need ?” Later in 1932, an editorial in the New York Times said, “Hoover has failed as a party leader. He has failed as an economist …He has failed as a business leader …He has failed as a person because of his awkwardness of manner and speech and lack of mass magnetism.”

As it was in the 1928 match, the votes of the Presidential election of 1932 culminated into another landslide, but this time Herbert Hoover was not the winner. Hoover had squandered arguably the most massive mandate ever given a candidate in winning the 1928 election, but, by 1932, the time had run out to resolve the growing economic crisis. New York’s Governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, bested Hoover by taking a more substantial plurality of the popular votes, sweeping 42 of the 48 states, and ultimately crushing the incumbent in the electoral college: 472 for Roosevelt and only 59 votes for Hoover. The defeat was personally humiliating to Hoover, who had spent little time campaigning; ideologically, he had hoped to defeat Roosevelt, as well as the economic crisis, by sitting behind a desk. Hoover was at his best working with strategies, theories, and numbers, rather than people. He was more interested in balancing the federal budget and making deals with industries, than finding practical ways to help the nation survive. The message was clear; the voters wanted a leader who showed compassion, but, sadly, the awkward and quiet Herbert Hoover struggled to do that.

Although Hoover’s political enemies framed him as uncaring and cold, in reality, he cared about the citizens and worked tirelessly to figure out a plan to save the economy. The problem was, his plans did not work, primarily because he refused to allow the federal government to provide direct aid to citizens. Hoover’s mistake was that he naively thought that all problems, even the vastly complicated ones like the Great Depression, could be solved by applying his philosophy of hard work and self-reliance.

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933 – Herbert Hoover and the incoming President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised Americans a “New Deal,” and during his first “Hundred Days” as President he signed several groundbreaking new laws. The irony was that FDR’s “New Deal” loosely resembled those that Hoover had attempted. The difference was, however, the New Deal bills supported direct federal aid but also tightened government control over many industries. Even more surprising was that many of the central ideas of FDR’s plan, such as agricultural loans, deposit insurance, and a government home-mortgage agency, were Hoover’s.

In 1936, and again in 1940, Hoover had quietly hoped that his party would come knocking on his door. He lived to be an older man, wise and likely reflective, especially about his lost Presidency. Hoover emerged as a leading critic of FDR’s “New Deal” programs, despite having inspired a number of them. He wrote articles and books that presented his conservative views and always warned against the dangers of an intervening government, which becomes too powerful.In the end, Herbert Hoover probably had few regrets.

Sources:

Image: (Herbert Hoover, along with President Warren G. Harding and his wife Florence attend a baseball game in 1922.)

“Hoover, the Boy Who Entered Business at 17, Who Fought His Way to the Top” (June 15, 1928 edition of the Evening Star (Washington, DC)

M>Bay City Times, Bay City, Mi. Friday, June 15, 1928

New York Times, July,1932

The New Yorker Magazine “Hating on Herbert Hoover” by Nicholas Lemman, October 2017

5 Comments
    1. Chuck Stevens I thought it was Sen Huey Long who promised ” A Chicken in every pot.
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      ourgreatamericanheritage
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      ourgreatamericanheritage Chuck, the expression was used by several politicians including Huey Long. Hoover used it in 1928 and Long used it in the late 30s

    1. The expression “a chicken in every pot” [on Sundays] was first used by Henri de Navarre in his campaign for the throne of France, which he won (after five years of civil war) in 1594. And even then it took him another slogan, “Paris is worth a Mass,” to get in the door and on the throne

    1. Now it’s- a casket in every corner!

    1. Hoovers vice president was 3/8 native American…. Charles Curtis

    1. Every one of us needs to read this story

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